“By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff” (Hebrews 11:21).
A substantial amount of time has passed in Jacob’s life between the events referenced in Hebrews 11:20 and the one mentioned here in Hebrews 11:21. Jacob was now approaching the end of his life when his son Joseph (accompanied by his sons Ephraim and Manasseh) met with him for the last time. It was during that final meeting that Jacob declared by faith that Ephraim and Manasseh would numbered among the national tribes of Israel.
Genesis chapter forty-eight provides us with that account…
“Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine” (Genesis 48:5).
Reuben and Simeon were the first sons born to Jacob. So in making this statement, Jacob essentially said to Joseph, “Your two sons will receive the same recognition that my first two sons receive.” In doing so, Jacob “adopted” Ephraim and Manasseh and assigned them a portion of his inheritance along with the rest of his biological sons. This included a share in the covenantal blessings that Jacob received from his father Isaac, who inherited them from Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, who received them from God.
Jacob’s twelve sons (along with Ephraim and Manasseh) eventually became the progenitors of the people groups known as “the twelve tribes of Israel.” However, Jacob’s adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh explains why those twelve tribes are often listed in different combinations. While the addition of Ephraim and Manasseh creates fourteen people groups, they are always collectively identified as “twelve tribes” within the Scriptures.
Before we leave Hebrews 11:21, we should also take note of something unusual that occurred as Jacob was preparing to bless Ephraim and Manasseh…
“And Joseph took both of them, Ephraim on his right toward Israel’s left hand and Manasseh on his left toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them close to him. But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn” (Genesis 48:13-14 NIV).
The Biblical Scriptures employ the imagery of the “right hand” as a symbolic representation of power, authority, or favor. The eldest son generally received the blessing associated with that position at his father’s right hand. However, Jacob reversed that process in this instance. While Jacob’s physical body may have been frail and weak with age, we’ll soon see that his spiritual insight was undiminished.